Dazed and confused

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

As of last Wednesday night, Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro still had a lot of unanswered questions on the planned shift in the national government’s pandemic response strategy.

Teodoro has been among the most pro-active mayors in this pandemic, with his city becoming the first local government unit to put up its own molecular laboratory for speedy processing of COVID swab tests.

While the national government dithered, Teodoro also quickly signed up the only local developer of RT-PCR tests, Manila HealthTek, to provide the most affordable gold standard COVID testing to his constituents.

Large-scale testing therefore will be less of a headache for Teodoro compared with his peers in Metro Manila in the shift to granular lockdowns with storm-type alert levels 1 to 4.

But what about the other aspects of the strategic shift, such as inter-zonal border controls – a major concern for the city that is contiguous to the province of Rizal?

Teodoro told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” that he also needed clarity on funding sources for ayuda for areas placed under hard granular lockdown of up to 14 days. Will the national government share the financial and logistics burden with local government units with limited resources? And will the LGUs have full authority to decide which areas must be placed under hard lockdown, or will they need clearance from an overseeing body of the national government?

The only thing clear as of last Wednesday was that there were still several issues that needed clarification in this major shift in the pandemic response.

*      *      *

Last Tuesday morning, while entrepreneurs and their employees were happily preparing for what they expected would be the reopening of their shuttered businesses the next day, Sept. 8, the Metro Manila mayors were being briefed on the shift to granular lockdowns and easing from modified enhanced community quarantine to general community quarantine, from MECQ to GCQ.

The mayors received the draft guidelines hours later, in the afternoon. Shortly thereafter, Malacañang announced the deferment of the shift to GCQ and granular lockdowns until Sept. 15.

Teodoro and the other mayors can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in their confusion.

Thoroughly bewildered and with their reopening plans ruined, members of the country’s largest business group, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, lamented the “premature… half-studied” announcement of the shift to granular lockdowns and easing to GCQ.

Amid the confusion, it seemed surreal that the focus of President Duterte’s now twice-weekly rant to the nation, aired on Wednesday morning, was not the major policy shift in the pandemic response, but his fight with the Philippine Red Cross and its chairman plus the Senate.

Teodoro is also questioning the wisdom of shifting strategies in the middle of a COVID surge, which is increasingly looking worse than the killer surge from March to May this year that was fueled by the Alpha and Beta variants from the UK and South Africa.

*      *      *

The current surge is fueled by the even more infectious Delta variant that originally caused massive illness and death in India and then in Indonesia. (India is reportedly bracing for another Delta wave.)

Everyone understands the need to revive livelihoods ASAP. Whether the lockdown is widespread or granular, however, it will contain the virus only if accompanied by aggressive testing and contact tracing for timely isolation and effective treatment. We’ve seen this in places such as China, Taiwan and New Zealand, with positive results.

In our case, the government has chosen to invest billions in face shields rather than affordable RT-PCR testing capability or in an interoperable database for contact tracing.

These days, the funding is understandably focused on COVID vaccine procurement. But with the coronavirus constantly mutating, and some variants showing resistance to vaccines, the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. So testing should still be given top priority in the pandemic response. But this is no longer possible since there are many other pandemic-related items now calling for funding, according to the spokesperson for the National Task Force Against COVID-19, Restituto Padilla.

The government recently imposed price caps on COVID tests. Let’s see if it can be enforced, especially in private hospitals, where even people watching over COVID-stricken relatives are required to be tested daily (at P10,000 per test in one hospital in Taguig).

Aside from the lack of interest in ramping up testing capability, President Duterte has embarked on a sustained harangue of the Red Cross, which has been efficiently providing affordable RT-PCR tests, with swift results, and with home service available.

Once the heavier burden of the pandemic response is devolved to LGUs, can they handle it?

Even in Marikina, with its own RT-PCR testing kits and molecular lab facility, Teodoro is wondering if the local government can shoulder the full cost of granular lockdowns.

*      *      *

With the Metro Manila mayors still seeking clarity on many issues in the policy shift, why was it announced for Sept. 8 implementation?

The announcement, followed by its eleventh-hour withdrawal, provided fodder for criticism of the pandemic response, as politicians including Duterte began positioning themselves for the 2022 race last Wednesday.

Besides Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who officially launched his presidential bid with Senate President Tito Sotto as running mate, Sen. Manny Pacquiao also emerged from his mandatory 14-day quarantine and renewed his accusations of corruption under the Duterte administration.

The half-baked announcement also drew the harshest rebuke yet from Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. Pandemic response officials “living in Disneyland” should be sacked, Moreno said.

Yorme Isko had earlier chided the administration for focusing on his briefs rather than the pandemic. Perhaps having just recently survived COVID, Moreno’s remarks last Wednesday were no longer flippant. The fighting words also hinted at a possible stab at the presidency in 2022: “I will face you in October!”

The pandemic response is going to be the key issue in 2022. The launch of the granular lockdown, aborted on the same day that Duterte was formally nominated by his fractured party to run for vice president, does not speak well of the administration’s performance.

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